In a week’s time, America celebrated its independence, Ellie Wiesel passed away and left us with his prolific voice of deconstructing oppression, and at least two black men died at the hands of what can only be described as an absence of justice. To once again digest the complexity of bigotry, institutionalized racism, and lives lost seems insurmountable. And yet silence never was, nor ever will be, an option.
Initially publishers were wary to publish Night, the raw and deeply moving autobiography of Ellie Wiesel’s life inside Auschwitz, inside a genocide. It was deemed too dark. But like most stories that must be heard it discovered an audience, one that included me as a sixth grader.
Looking back, my concept of darkness as a twelve-year-old was immature enough that it included Disney villains and lost homework assignments. Even after reading Night for the first time, there were countless themes of race, religion, and injustice that couldn’t be grasped fully. Despite the lessons missed, while I didn’t know it at the time, a book about the Holocaust had brought me to a proverbial hill which oversaw our world.
On one side, the slope dove further into the fray, a dark landscape that challenged worldviews and shattered the executive beliefs that inequity and discrimination are nonexistant. On the other side, a believable but incomplete matrix existed, a space that housed comfort and ignorance.
The comfortable and distant view of injustice excuses us from the dirtiness of it all. In that sense, we are creatures of light, not night. Wiesel’s writings and teachings encourage others to dive unapologetically into community rather than viewing from afar. Avoid the “fringe view,” as one might call it.
The fringe view takes many forms. Silence being one, victim blaming another, the belief that racism was a mid-60s problem being the worst. All are simultaneously comfortable and inexcusable. Put differently—and in the context of a recent Independence Day—freedom in America is conditional. The conditions placed on freedom in America involve race intimately. So if you were waiting for consideration of “All Lives Matter,” it is best summarized in one word.
The police deaths last week were just as heinous as the mounting black lives taken. Credit is due to the police officers who have shouldered much of what society has neglected: mental health, poverty, human rights. It’s possible to have great respect for police officers while simultaneously being outraged when police brutality is evident. But this story never began with “all.” It began centuries ago when a class-based idea of race was constructed and is lived out today through policies, prejudices, and people. Black lives matter in the sense that if you are black in America you are more likely to be killed during an encounter with police, you are less likely to have your pain adequately controlled while in the emergency room, and you are repeatedly stereotyped by Hollywood’s legion of angry black men. Race is perhaps the greatest social myth ever created, yet its constructs and constraints on freedom are very, very real.
Which leaves us with scars like last week, buried under familiar headlines. Black life here, gunfire there. Mourn and heal. Rinse and repeat.
Freedom was never reserved for an individual. Rather, it’s collective. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel said in his acceptance speech, “While their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.” Replace “their” with whomever, but the message is the same.
Walk deep into the Night. And once you have, find the light together.